Tag Archives: edstartup

EdStartup 101: The Pain Test

To be honest, my real pain this week was:

  • one book deadline
  • another major deadline this week
  • the start of regular classes next week
  • I have to move to a new office soon (frakkin’ packing’!)
  • and two presentations to prepare for a fast-approaching conference.

But, I shall attempt to test the depths of the pain associated with My Idea.

Identify Your Assumptions

What causes the problem?

Basically, I think ELT publishers are very comfortable with the current coopetition they have going on (maybe especially in Japan). Why? There has been huge consolidation in the industry and the few majors can effectively share the market for graded readers in English and it is very hard for anyone else to enter. Friends who started a quite successful textbook company gave up trying to get into the graded reader segment because the barriers to entry were too high. Why? You need a huge catalogue right from the start if you want to sell paper readers through retail outlets. Sales direct to schools are a pretty narrow channel to get through.

Why else? Inertia. There is an awful lot of “We’ve always done it this way. We have a library with shelves this size. I finally got people used to it.”

Why? Publishers are scared of getting into the digital book space. They saw what happened with music and movies.

Why else? Economies of scale, worldwide distribution of paper books, and trying to market from kids to adults in one product means the readers tend to be bland and to converge. Also, there’s P.A.R.S.N.I.P.s to be reckoned with.

What are people with the problem doing to solve it?

Not that much as far as I can see. A look at self-publishing platforms like Feedbooks and Smashwords doesn’t turn up much. Kieran McGovern is one exception  Panda eBooks is another but they are really going after young kids. Nothing out there for adults. I’ve tried self-publishing some ebook readers myself. It wasn’t hard, but it didn’t change the world either.

The big players have been very slow to get into this. I just turned in the manuscript for my fourth graded reader with a major publisher which would be perfect as an ebook–it is an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure game book–but it will come out in paper.

What are all of the current solutions to the problem?

Schools sometimes get around the cost problem by asking students to one to three of a large set of readers, then exchange with classmates. This gets around the cost problem, but with lots of other attendant headaches and weaknesses. It was the best available option at my previous uni. We had 2,100 students buy two readers each year. There is a lot of demand out there.

Another solution is piracy. Sheet fed scanners and OCR software are dirt cheap. Schools discourage this for obvious reasons, but it works for individuals.

Another solution are kids apps from general education. There are tons of them out there. But just because language aimed at 6-10 year olds seems easy, it isn’t appropriate for ESL/EFL learners.

Simple English Wikipedia is great, and I edit there when I can, but it is one genre only. No literature.

Why aren’t the current solutions good enough?

I think I spelled that out out in the Idea post, but in nutshell, has nothing happened in publishing for language learners since 1920? (OK. CD audio was added. )  So much is being left untapped.

How long has it been a problem?

The problems of cost, replacement, and management of paper books have been with us for a long time. But really the problem of no ebook literature for language learners is recent. It’s just in the past year or two that most of my students have started turning up with smartphones or tablets suitable for reading. Three to five years for independent, adult learners.

How easily could something happen to make the problem go away?

Pretty easily I think. Just needs the hard work of organizing and doing to make a solid start. The added features like better dictionary support, tracking, mining data for research, etc. require expertise and good design (that is hard).

Verify your understanding of the problem

How many people do I know that have the problem?

Hundreds. Thousands if you include all of the students I’ve had in language programs or classes.

Do you know any experts?

Yep. Plenty of ’em.

Do you have wide variety of sources documenting the problem?

Yes. There has been plenty published about this direct problem and related aspects by Paul Nation, Tom Cobb, others. i’ll have to come back and document this.

Start asking…

No time this week I’m afraid, but I’ve talked with teachers, writers, students, and publishers at length about this.

Monetizable pain hypothesis

Why go to all this trouble? Will someone return a cold call to sell this to them?

If I call somebody or email them and say, “Hey. I can get you some different graded readers that–aren’t exactly like all the others; are suitable for college students/adults; have added features; are more convenient; and cost less.” I think people will pay.

EdStartup 101: Idea

What is your idea?

My idea is to publish graded readers for ESL and EFL learners and teachers that make the best use of digital tools for production, reading and study, and distribution. Basically, I want to set up a digital publishing house/studio/cooperative/press to take advantage of trends in school-based BYOD, Extensive Reading (ER) in language learning, and adult lifelong learning. Surprisingly, almost nobody is doing this.

What problem does your idea solve?

I believe this will solve a whole slew of problems. Conventional printed-on-paper graded readers are very limited and limiting. I may be a little into the ELT weeds here, but stick with me.

Our entire collection of graded readers for hundreds of students fits on the second and third shelves on the right.

1. Waste: Paper books are wasteful for libraries and schools: not very durable, limited in distribution, students don’t return them. Extensive Reading programs often have to replace 10% of their library every year.

2. Cost: Most conventional readers cost 5-10 USD. If an active learner needs one a week, this is a significant cost. Digital readers (apps or ebooks) can be cheaper.

3. Gatekeepers: Mainstream publishers want a more limited catalog both in number of titles and content. There is not enough content for adults-mainly for children. There just aren’t enough books, styles, or voices. A lot of graded readers are just plain boring because they are designed to meet the lowest common denominator.

4. Inconvenient: Paper books fail to take advantage of people’s devices for reading anywhere anytime. They also give up on all kinds of support for learners like better dictionaries, linked learning tools, convenient audio, better image support, etc.

5. Fixed: Paper books can’t be customized to schools, cultures, learners’ native languages, or individuals. Rapid fixes/new editions not possible.

6. Shelf space: Publishers like large series of books (30 or more) so they can get a good profile on bookstore shelves. I’ve been told not worth publishing in smaller series because nobody will sell them.

7. Time to market: Education publishers are slow. Sometimes painfully slow.

8. Nobody is provides graded readers with a complete solution: attached study tools, assessments, and convenient multimedia.

How does your idea fix the problem?

A purely digital company can run cheaper, faster, and more flexibly than a large conventional publishing house. No inventory, no offices, no fixed salary costs, but also able to take advantage of a large pool of teachers who are often writing, but not often publishing. With my plan, I can take chances and get into niches that nobody else wants. Digital readers can be cheap, customizable, everywhere, and of every kind.

Why do you want to fix the problem?

Because I had this problem as a language learning program coordinator. I wasted so much money every year buying books for students to mangle or lose. They are produced to be destroyed quickly, and thus replaced. I still have the problem now as a teacher who has to force less effective books on students for lack of anything else. I’ve also experienced this on the other side as an author waiting forever for a book to come out in print and have it be compromised.

Also, I think it would be fun.

EdStartup 101 Week 2: Response to Betsy Corcoran–Content, Process, Style

There are just a few hours before the next video goes up online, but I want to finally get my thoughts down about Betsy Corcoran‘s video for EdStartup 101 Week 2. My thoughts are all over the place with this one, but I’ll try to keep it organized.


There were several interesting or thought-provoking items in Betsy’s video.

* I’m not even closely related to the VC angel funding etc. world. Any of the budding ideas I have for my own projects do not require them. I’m really not interested in going that direction for several reasons. Mainly, I already have a full-time career that I value. Secondly, I’m looking at how to start something up that allows me to learn all the aspects–not hire people to do them. I’m looking at my EdStartup as educational for myself.

* Listening to her description of how hard it was to try the non-profit route hit home. I’m just try to work as part of an existing non-profit, and the headaches from regulation here in Tokyo are terrible. Much easier to go the for-profit route. And, if there are ever any profits, try to think about what to do with them to further educational goals.

* Her comment about page views driving online journalism-and tech journalism in particular- and that until recently edtech just couldn’t provide the page views to get coverage are kind of sad but true. Until the ad-driven page view model is replaced, we’ll be stuck with a lot of bad journalism. Is the MetaFilter model one to look at? Is there a way to monetize the ISI impact factor model in academic publishing?

* Interesting that there is such a bubble forming in edtech. I had no idea. Considering that education is chronically underfunded, where do these people see the money coming from? It isn’t like healthcare or defense where there are giant pots of money to dig into. On the other hand, maybe that is precisely the point. Create a product or service that allows educators to do more with less and you have something of potential value. But then, if you follow that logic, you may be chasing a dwindling pool. OK, I’ve talked myself out of the viability of edtech, so there must be something wrong with my reasoning. More money to earn from individuals than from institutions, for example.


My thoughts on video and how it was used this week.

*Use video for what video is good for. Video is great for giving people a personal connection, less so for rich information/date, and terrible for reviewing, linking to, or scanning. A short video intro from the experts first like we all did the first week would have been good for the personal. I find a one hour video like this not very useful. This was basically a single-iteration asynchronous communication. It doesn’t work that well. Let me explain.

  • The Q and A forum was not used before the discussion.
  • The video is produced live with only the few on YouTube at the time providing live comments, questions, and feedback. Though better than most YT comment streams, not all of it was helpful and only the few who were available at that time could participate. (Personal gripe: since I am at GMT+9 I will not be able to participate live in any of these.)
  • The YT video is marked “No description available”. Really?

* How about more accessible media? I am not a big YouTube user (as creator or viewer) so maybe there are better ways of doing this, but why do I have to futz around with trying various downloaders, mp3 converters (I wanted to listen on the train), etc. Why is YT the right tool for this job? More open video, an mp3 download/podcast, and a transcript would all be valuable.

* A one-hour video interview with an expert is a relatively low demand on the expert’s time, and maybe that is why this format is used, but I’d like to see something else. How about the 2-5 minute intro one day. Followed by more action on the Q and A board (people might ask more questions if they have something to hang them from). Then, if video is used, break it down into 3-4 daily 15-20 minute interviews. This would make it more communicative and multidirectional. Ideally, interspersed with some text-based discussion. All of this would of course demand several hours from the experts rather than one. Maybe not possible.


This is a personal request, but offered to help people communicate better. Maybe I’m just sensitized and this is confirmation bias in action, but since 2004 and then 2011 the word “tsunami” has entered everyone’s consciousness. Newscasters, journalists, and others seem to like to use this now for big game-changing events. (Perhaps to replace the cliched and tiresome “game-changing”).

Please don’t.

The phrase “Internet Tsunami” in this context is hard for me to listen to. Would you say an Internet Katrina? Or, an Internet 9/11? Think about it.

The phrase “Internet Tsunami” in this context is inaccurate. It’s bad writing. The metaphor is all wrong. What Betsy was describing was not an unpredictable result of a single event that destroyed almost everything in its path with little warning and replaced it with nothing.

(Sorry Betsy, you’re not the only one. Plenty of writers have been doing this lately.)


Not to leave on a sour note, I did enjoy the talk. It gave me a lot to think about. Betsy is really on top of things, and I became much more interested in EdSurge. I think near the end she said something like “company in search of a business model”. I hope that search goes well, and that we can all learn from it.

EdStartUp Getting Started: Introduction

Seems like good timing for me to try out this MOOC, EdStartup 101, with David Wiley and others. This first assignment is just a quick “hello” to everyone on the course. I’m looking forward to collaborating with everyone and learning from each other.